G. B. Tennyson does not apologize for the apparent lack of interest for nineteenth-century Tractarian poetry by the contemporary reader or the creators of Victorian Literature anthologies. Although much of the actual poetry written by the Tractarians may appear especially trite and technically inferior to the later poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, G. B. Tennyson is unwavering in his pursuit to prove that the Tractarian poets have an incredible cultural and literary historical value which has been too easily dismissed and overlooked. His central thesis revolves around the conviction that Victorian poetics is inextricably linked to the theological and that the separation of the literary from the religious at the time is ultimately reductionist.
The introduction to his work elucidates the integral role of religion in the Victorian experience and defines his use of devotional poetry as distinct from the more over-arching term of religious poetry, which includes such supposed sub-divisions as sacred poetry and hymns. The most illuminating section of the book is the second chapter entitled Tractarian Poetics which astutely delineates the influence of such pre-Tractarian poets as Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge in integrating the Romantic with the religious in order to set the stage for the Tractarians. This chapter also offers a helpful summary of the primary essays that impacted Tractarian ideology as it dominated the first phase of the Oxford Movement. Though not as perhaps interesting to the general reader, the next three chapters connect John Keble, John Newman, and Isaac Williams as the "Tractarian Triumvirate" through an in-depth examination of their major literary works and the effects of these works on Victorian poetics. The last two chapters focus on the continuing effects of Tractarianism after it had reached the apogee of its popularity in the mid 1840s and how the likes of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins tenuously fit the mold of their Tractarian predecessors.
I was very impressed by how G. B. Tennyson was able to convey his own contagious enthusiasm for an area that today may seem a bit dull and perhaps, underdeveloped outside its apparently limited scholarly cadre. In the span of two-hundred-and-eleven pages, he was able to demonstrate convincingly that the Tractarian movement was not an isolated event that simply began with the first appearance of the Tracts in 1833 and abruptly ended with the Newman's release of the ninetieth and final tract. Rather, G. B. Tennyson weaves an intricate historical tapestry of Tractarianism that begins in the religious writings of the 17th century, continues in the Tractarian works, from Keble's The Christian Year to Newman's Lyra Apostolica to the collected poetry of Williams, and simply extends beyond the twelve years of Tracts for the Times publication.
G. B. Tennyson appears at his finest in his defining of the key Tractarian concepts of Analogy, Reserve, and poetry's property of effusive emotion that echoes Wordsworth's sentiment that poetry "is the spontaneous overflow of emotion" within a religious context. Unfortunately, G. B. Tennyson freely interchanges the analogical with the typological which unfortunately underscores the complex, albeit subtle, differences between the two. By not distinguishing between the two terms, Tennyson unwittingly edits out the Victorian period's use of specific biblical typology, such as Newman's own use of Moses Striking the Rock in his sermons, which was sure to be an integral feature of Victorian culture and poetics. Unfortunately, G. B. Tennyson opts to create a more broad based typological approach, in which "Tractarian analogy means quite simply that the entire universe is a symbol of its creator" (56). Ironically, although Tennyson successfully integrates such important religious reading material of the day into his discussion such as the religious poetic classics of Milton and Dante, the Tracts, Keble's The Christian Year, Newman's Apologia and Lyra Apostolica, Williams's Cathedral, and even The Book of Common Prayer, he makes little if any mention of the Bible. Surely, such a comprehensive work would make room for an in-depth examination of The Word of God's role in the shaping of Tractarianism and its so-called triumvirate.
Another troubling aspect of G. B. Tennyson's work, appears in his cursory dismissal of Abrams and Warren's application of Freudian theory to Keble and Tractarian thought. Although he does a masterful job of showing how religion and art or Victorian aesthetics and theology are seemingly inseparable in their "joint task of salvation" (23), his conclusion that "the governing framework for Keble is theology, not psychology, and it is from the theological perspective that his theory must be viewed" (62) seems a specious rationalization. Tennyson is uncharacteristically lacking in explanation of his view, which only accentuates his reasoning as an incomplete, if not thoroughly inadequate, denial of the psychological implications and possibilities of Tractarian thought.
Although Tennyson's decision to devote individual chapters to key figures in the Tractarian vein was successful, he could have clarified the strengths and weaknesses of Tractarian verse further by briefly comparing the verses of the triumvirate with some of the works of Hopkins or Rossetti. Even so, despite the high probability that the works of the Tractarian poets will never eclipse the popularity of Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets or a poem like In Memoriam or Goblin Market, it is safe to say that these poems can be illuminated by principles of Tractarian devotional poetry and vice-versa. After completing G. B. Tennyson's Victorian Devotional Poetry, we as readers must come away with the knowledge that it is we who must apologize for the seeming lack of interest in devotional poetry that the contemporaries of the Tractarian poets certainly did not share.
Last modified 1997; link last added 1998